April 6, 2022
Putting Connecticut’s national runner-up season in context
Despite the adversity UConn faced this season, the Huskies still upheld a winning tradition
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma did something Sunday that he’s never done in his 37 seasons at the helm of the program: address the media after a loss in a national championship game. For the first time in 12 tries, the Huskies walked off the court as another team was handed women’s college basketball’s biggest prize.
“I’ve said this all along. You have to be really good, and you have to be a little bit lucky to win the national championship. First things first, though, you have to be really good, and you have to be really well balanced and you have to be all the things that South Carolina is,” Auriemma said. “You have to have good guard play. Your big guys have to be able to dominate either at one end or the other. Then you need a little bit of luck.”
“The 11 times that we won, I would say — maybe all 11 but at least 10, we had the better team. We played like we were the better team, and we were well balanced and we had all the bases covered and we had everything that you needed to win a championship.”
During Sunday night’s national championship game, Connecticut didn’t have the pieces it needed to win a championship. The dynastic team that has on so many occasions simply dominated its competition had no answers, no ability to meet the elite defensive pressure of Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks. They were simply out-matched, and it wasn’t really close.
“They were just too good for us,” Auriemma conceded in his opening remarks to the media after the 64-49 defeat.
Connecticut is now 11-for-22 in winning titles at their Final Four appearances. When the Huskies have lost this late into the post-season, it has very rarely been a blow-out loss like Sunday’s defeat to South Carolina. In the program’s 10 previous Final Four losses, UConn has lost by an average margin of just 7.1 points, with three games being decided in overtime.
In short, what happened in Sunday’s national championship game isn’t typical for Connecticut. But this season hasn’t been a typical Connecticut season.
UConn was plagued by injuries all season, lost to a conference opponent for the first time in nearly a decade, was defeated by a non-ranked opponent for the first time in 239 games, and dropped out of the top 10 in the AP Poll for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
Despite all of the unprecedented, ridiculous streaks that came to an end for this UConn program this season, with a victory over N.C. State in the Elite Eight, the Huskies managed to maintain one important streak: 14 consecutive Final Four appearances.
It’s hard to put into context how incredible it is to accomplish 14 consecutive Final Four appearances. It means the Huskies have gone 56-0 since 2007 in first and second round, Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen match-ups. It means that for nearly a decade and a half the program has competed on the sport’s biggest stage every single season.
After winning a record 11 national champions, including four in a row between 2013 and its most recent in 2016, the standard at Connecticut has exceeded “merely” reaching the Final Four, though. The expectation is to win a national championship. Sophomore Paige Bueckers echoed the sentiment of this tradition after UConn’s loss on Sunday.
“Super proud of this team for how far we’ve come and all the adversity we’ve dealt with and all we’ve overcome to get to this point,” Bueckers said. “But at UConn, it’s national championship or nothing, so obviously upset, frustrated, disappointed.”
As head coach Geno Auriemma pointed out, time may offer some perspective on the journey the Huskies took together this season.
“I think it was a remarkable effort by them to stay together as well as they did throughout the entire year, and to be in this game,” Auriemma said.
“But then once you get in this game, you want to win this game. You’re not just happy to be here. But I think when this wears off, I think they’ll appreciate the effort that it took to get here.”
Westbrook was the 2018 SEC Freshman of the Year and became the first player to transfer from Tennessee to UConn after she left the Vols program after her sophomore year. She chose to claim her bonus year of eligibility instead of entering the WNBA draft after last season’s Final Four loss to Arizona. Known by teammates as “Mama E,” Westbrook was a mature leader on this team. This season, she found her role providing a veteran presence coming off the bench for the Huskies.
“Definitely not the outcome that we wanted, but I think it was definitely…worth it for me coming back and just being with this group of girls and making the memories that we did,” Westbrook said after the loss. “You know, we win together, we lose together, so this definitely hurts, but a lot of memories, a lot of great memories made with this group.”
Christyn Williams entered the UConn program in 2018 as the number one overall recruit in the country. Williams has been a starter for the Huskies since her freshman season, and was this season’s BIG EAST Tournament Most Outstanding Player and Ann Meyers Drysdale Award winner as the nation’s best shooting guard. Williams led the Huskies this regular season with 14.9 points per game and 16.3 points per game against conference opponents.
Nelson-Ododa arrived in Storrs as the fifth overall recruit in 2018. Last year’s BIG EAST Co-Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the 2022 All-BIG EAST First Team, Nelson-Ododa has emerged as more of a presence throughout her time in Connecticut. She was never the dominant inside force the Huskies needed against longer, more athletic teams like South Carolina, but added missing length over the years to more under-sized UConn rosters.
The Huskies have two generational players on their roster in Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd. Next season Bueckers will be a junior and Fudd will be a sophomore. Both missed significant time this season with injuries, so we haven’t really discovered the full potential of the duo on the court. We have, however, begun to see their earning potential through the name, image and likeness (NIL) deals they have secured over the season. Over Final Four weekend, Bueckers became the first women’s college basketball player to ever reach one million followers on Instagram.
If both Bueckers and Fudd are healthy next season, they will combine to create a powerful backcourt presence for Connecticut that will be an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. Between Bueckers’ elite court vision and Fudd’s pure shooting form we saw glimpses this season of what could be. Watching these two evolve as teammates is a key storyline for next season.
The Huskies will also be returning some size that is departing with Nelson-Ododa. Graduate student and 6’5 forward Dorka Juhász announced that she’d be returning for another season with the Huskies. Juhász missed the Final Four this season due to a wrist injury sustained during the Elite Eight. With a year in the Huskies’ system under her belt though, expect Juhász to be an important part of UConn’s post rotation next season. Rising junior Aaliyah Edwards was inconsistent this season after a break-out freshman season, but her ceiling is high. Expect Edwards to come back next season stronger and ready to lead this team as an upperclassman.
UConn is also bringing in, as usual, two top recruits in Ayanna Patterson and Isuneh Brady. Standing at 6’2 and 6’3 respectively, both add length and skill to the the Huskies frontcourt. The length is critical against longer teams like South Carolina and Stanford, and don’t be surprised if UConn looks to add even more length to its roster via the transfer portal.
For Auriemma, putting together the pieces to win a national championship year in and year out is just part of the job. Despite an adversity-filled season that Auriemma described as one of the most challenging of his career, he and his coaching staff will do what they’ve done for decades: re-load.
“You look at the makeup of your team and the makeup of the other teams around the country and you go, what are we missing? And what are our strengths, and then you try to address those, you know, in the offseason,” Auriemma said. “That’s what we’ve always done and that’s what we’re going to do.”
If Husky tradition continues, expect to see UConn at next season’s Final Four in Dallas, competing again for a 12th national championship.
Howard Megdal contributed reporting for this article.